Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Scotland’

London and Edinburgh on collision course


The phoney peace is over.

When Theresa May assumed the prime ministership, one of the first trips – not for now a foreign visit – she made was to Edinburgh for talks on Brexit with First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Now it’s Sturgeon’s turn to come to London for talks with Mrs May along with the leaders of the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

When May went to Scotland it was all smiles and emollience from the new Tory leader –a wise move given Scots had voted to remain in the EU by a much wider margin than England and Wales voted to leave in the referendum a few weeks before.

It was no secret that many supporters of independence would now push for another Scottish referendum to prevent their country being dragged out of the EU against its will.

Twenty six months ago – yes time does fly – at the time of what was known as the Indyref, the supporters of Scotland staying in the Union with England had argued the country could only ensure it stayed in the EU if it remained in the UK

Many at the time, including myself, thought this was a hostage to fortune.

Prime Minister Cameron had already committed to hold the vote on Europe if he won the 2015 UK general election – and – as we’ve now seen – he could not guarantee an EU referendum would see a victory for what would become known as Remain.

The Scottish National Party had also foreseen this possibility and kept their options open on holding a second independence referendum by running for the Scottish parliament elections in May this year on a manifesto reserving the right to call a second referendum in event of a vote to leave the EU.

So when May met Sturgeon in Edinburgh she promised to listen and consult over Brexit, while Sturgeon largely kept her powder dry taking a wait and see approach to how the new UK leader would handle Brexit.

Two months and a Conservative Party conference later, it is clear Theresa May is veering towards a comprehensive break with the EU – hard Brexit – with pledges to restrict immigration and no guarantee of continued preferential access to the single market or possibly even the customs union.

There also seems to have been precious little listening and consultation with the Scottish Government either, despite strong legal arguments that Holyrood needs to consent to the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act.

In response, and probably reluctantly (despite what the London media and Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson might say), Nicola Sturgeon has started the process to legislate for another vote in Scotland on the whether to end the Union with England.

Number 10 sources have made clear May will block this.

The 2014 Scottish vote was legislated for by Westminster following an agreement between David Cameron and then First Minister, Alex Salmond, and clearly Cameron’s successor thinks she can veto another vote by refusing to pass the necessary legislation.

Mrs May might think this would be legally sound, but unless she wantes to boost support for independence in Scotland and provoke a constitutional crisis it wouldn’t be a wise course of action.

And the spin ahead of this week’s meeting in London, with May in danger of sounding patronising, is unlikely to help her convince Scots she really takes their concerns seriously.

The change from the cuddly rhetoric of listening and consulting to the ‘we’ll make the decisions on Brexit’ and dismissal of the SNP’s democratic mandate to consider calling a second referendum also indicate something else Scots are unlikely to miss.

It seems Theresa May doesn’t consider The Union a true union of equals – flying in the face of the rhetoric from London ahead of the Scottish referendum and the history of how the two countries came to form the UK in the eighteenth century.

But one thing is clear – the gloves are off and we seem set on course for a showdown over whether Scotland remains in the EU rather than the UK.

The unionist media in London and Scotland already seem to believe this is coming and have settled upon Scots Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, as the leader of the anti-independence campaign when the next indyref comes.

She is being given extensive coverage, much of it fawning, on the back of leading the Tories to second place in the Scottish election in May.

I’m not sure this is either justified or wise.

Yes, she led the Tories to their best ever result at a Scottish parliament election with 22% of the vote, but only seven of her MSPs were directly elected from constituencies rather than via the proportional vote for the regional lists.

It’s also worth noting she ran by downplaying her Tory credentials and the Conservatives only won one seat in Scotland at the 2015 UK election

Pro-independence supporters are also already exposing Ms Davidson’s Achilles heel – she is the leader in Scotland of the party that called and lost the Brexit vote which, as things stand, will take Scots out of the EU against their will.

On her side, First Minister Sturgeon is also on less than ideal political ground.

She has made clear she would not want to have another independence vote until it was clear she would win it and, at the moment, the limited opinion polling that’s been done since June 23rd doesn’t suggest a big shift has yet occurred since 2014.

It is very possible that once Article 50 is invoked and talks between London and Brussels get under way – probably next spring – the long-term economic damage from leaving the EU will be clearer and it will focus Scottish voters’ minds.

But Article 50 imposes a timetable on Sturgeon not of her choosing.

A second independence referendum would need to be held before the UK leaves the EU to improve the chances Scotland could remain with the minimum disruption.

All of this means tension between London and Edinburgh will intensify and a second indyef becomes a good bet.

Given the demographics of the first vote and the continued vibrancy of the pro-independence movement, it was already likely there would be a second bite of the cherry for supporters of Scottish independence.

Now, the Brexit vote and – as importantly – the way the government in London is approaching the upcoming talks with the rest of the EU are bringing the end of the United Kingdom ever closer.

Will Cameron mk2 mean a diminished Britain?

Foreign policy received little mention during Britain’s long election campaign, but the surprise victory of David Cameron’s Conservative Party portends lasting significance for the country’s role in the world.

Why this is so lies in the future of two unions – the European Union and the United Kingdom itself.

Cameron’s return to No. 10 Downing Street has increased the odds that the UK could leave the EU, and the landslide victory of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, SNP, means the chances the UK itself could break up have also risen. A country that leaves one of the world’s major economic blocs and cannot hold itself together is not one that will continue to carry the same weight in the world.

The Conservatives went into the election promising to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and then hold a referendum on continuing membership by the end of 2017.

Cameron has said that if he gets the changes he wants to the EU, especially tightening freedom of movement and the ability of people from other countries to claim welfare benefits in Britain, he will campaign for a vote to stay in.

There are powerful forces ranged against Britain’s threatened exit from the EU, what the media call “Brexit.” Big business is dead-set against leaving the world’s largest marketplace and has already started to lobby. In parliament, the two next largest parties, Labour and the SNP, need no convincing. Both are strongly pro-EU and despite the anti-EU, United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, gaining almost 13 percent of the vote nationally, it only returned one MP to the House of Commons; its public face, Nigel Farage, lost re-election.

So on the face of it, Cameron would have plenty of support if he campaigns to stay in and if his renegotiation is successful and the referendum won, it may well settle the long-running debate in Britain on Europe, and anchor the country in the EU for the foreseeable future.

But, despite opinion polls suggesting more support for staying than leaving, there is no guarantee Britain will vote to stay.

Prime Minister Cameron may well convince Britain’s partners to agree to changes restricting the right of EU citizens to claim welfare benefits in other member states. But on his demand to restrict the right of people from other countries to stay in the UK if they do not have a job, he has little support in other countries, particularly Germany and Poland, which embrace the free movement of people as a keystone of the EU. If the British prime minister must compromise on this, he may find it difficult to argue he has negotiated enough changes to justify campaigning for a vote to stay in.

The other complicating factor is – ironically – the fact the Conservative leader confounded the pollsters, media commentators, and maybe even himself, by winning a narrow overall majority.

This means backbench Conservative MPs will have more influence on the government than during the past five years of coalition. Up to a third of them are strongly Eurosceptic and will keep the pressure on Cameron to drive a hard bargain in negotiations, making the necessary compromises more difficult. They will also make a lot of noise if they think the prime minister has only managed to secure agreement for partial changes.

Indeed, within hours of the election, one of the most influential Eurosceptics, the former cabinet minister John Redwood said “the British people will leave the EU unless there is a sensible offer on the table” and sensible for him includes “the need to regain control of our borders.”

Cameron is also facing a phalanx of right-wing newspapers, implacably hostile to the EU, cheering on the skeptics. And if their track record is anything to go, by these papers will campaign vociferously with scant regard for the facts.

Traditionally, the pro-EU forces have a much lower profile than their opponents and have based their arguments on pragmatic economic arguments, but the stagnation of the eurozone since the economic crisis now makes such a positive case support more difficult.

If the British do vote to leave the EU, it would threaten the future of that other Union – the UK – almost certainly triggering another referendum on Scottish independence with a likely majority willing to quit the United Kingdom this time.

Polls on the EU consistently show more support for membership in Scotland than in England meaning the EU referendum could see a majority of Scots voting to stay in while a majority in the UK votes to leave. And although SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, says its landslide win in last week’s election, where it won 50 percent of the vote and 95 percent of the seats in Scotland, is not a mandate to hold another vote on independence, she has vowed to seek another independence referendum so Scotland could remain in the EU in the event of a UK vote to leave the union.

And it’s not just the EU referendum that makes eventual Scottish independence more likely – the way Cameron fought the election also exacerbated the divide between England and Scotland because he used the specter of the Scots calling the shots with a minority Labour government to scare English voters into supporting his party at the election. The tactic may have worked well with English voters, but it was divisive and probably helped boost support for the SNP.

A UK out of the EU, shorn of Scotland, would consolidate the perception in the world’s major capitals that Cameron is taking the country down an isolationist path.

The economic crisis and the austerity of Cameron’s first term have already diminished London’s appetite for international engagement, most notably in 2013 when MPs voted against military intervention in Syria. And the Conservatives are committed to further cuts, some of which will probably fall on the diplomatic service and the armed forces. US officials have already expressed concern Britain will not honor its NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence.

The notable exception to this retrenchment has been foreign aid, which has been protected from cuts with Cameron honoring the commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GDP. This means Britain could end up playing a role more like Japan since 1945 – funding international development, but playing a much less active diplomatic and military role.

This aid has brought Britain a lot of goodwill from around the world.  But the other instruments of British soft power have not fared so well. The BBC World Service, widely seen as key to British influence around the world, is now funded out of the public levy that pays for other BBC services, rather than directly by the government. The Conservatives are likely to freeze the levy or even reduce it when the current agreement on funding comes to end next year – and that will almost certainly mean more cuts to the BBC’s international services.

With the means to project its influence around the world facing straitened times and the increased likelihood it could end up outside the EU without Scotland, the UK’s global significance and authority is set for further decline – a puzzle for a country that still has the world’s fifth largest economy, a nuclear-armed military and a prized seat at the UN Security Council.

Read the original of this article at Yale Global 

May 7th 2015: another step on the road to Scottish independence?

Last September’s Scottish independence referendum was meant to give a definitive answer to the Scottish Question.

At least that was the hope of opponents of an independent Scotland.

If anyone needed proof, the campaign for the UK general election has shown that was a false hope with the Scottish National Party set to become the third largest party at Westminster and hold the balance of power there.

Not only that, but the way the main UK parties have fought the campaign in Scotland and the possible outcomes of the election will edge the country further on down the road to independence.

Over the past few weeks, the Conservatives have portrayed the SNP – and by implication their voters – as thieves in order to try to appeal to English resentment of their supposed subsidy of Scotland.

As for Labour, in order to blunt Tory accusations that a Prime Mininster Miliband would be in the SNP’s pocket, it says it would not do any deals with the Nationalists even if they do hold the balance at Westminister.

Insulting people or implying their votes can be disregarded if they are cast for the ‘wrong’ party is likely to alienate even many who voted “No” last autumn.

With next Thursday’s election highly unlikely to yield any party an overall majority, its messy aftermath will also bolster the factors making Scotland’s eventual independence more likely, whoever ends up in Downing St – be it Ed Miliband or David Cameron.

If Labour emerge as the largest party – the bookies’ current favourite scernario – it will almost certainly need the support of SNP MPs to survive in office.

So far Mr Miliband has ruled out any deals, largely to try neutralise Conservative accusations that he would be a hostage to the Scottish Nationalists.

He has rejected offers to join forces to keep David Cameron out of Downing Street from SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who has proved a formidable campaigner and debater and – given she is an incumbent First Minister – has impressed by increasing her already considerable personal popularity ratings.

But if the choice lies between taking office and making concessions to the SNP, will Ed Miliband really risk passing on the opportunity to be Prime Minister and give Mr Cameron a chance to form a government?

Some commentators have argued SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has weakened her leverage over Labour by ruling out supporting David Cameron.

However, if Mr Miliband refused any concessions, he would risk losing even more support in Scotland and he knows that to have a hope of winning a majority at Westminster ever again his party needs to win back its former voters there – especially in its old heartland in and around Glasgow.

As Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow – and its surrounding towns – has been the key to the tilt towards independence and the SNP’s current popularity there should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Scottish politics.

The Party has gradually been eroding Labour’s hold on the city for many years and last September it was one of the few areas where a majority voted for independence.

Many Labour voters were disgusted their party joined with the Conservatives to oppose independence and are in no mood to forgive so they have moved over to the SNP, which not only advocates independence, but is also a left of centre party opposing cuts to health and welfare spending – seemingly more sincerely than Labour.

This fundamental shift in the political landscape could take on the proportions of continental drift if a large cohort of SNP MPs is returned to Westminster and the main parties refuse to talk to them.

It is very possible Scottish voters would conclude that despite the plans to give greater powers to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, their votes are looked on as worth less than those of people in the rest of the UK.

So how does this help moves to independence given Ms Sturgeon has said this election is not about getting a mandate for a second referendum?

One course would be to continue the momentum set since 1999 of the gradual accretion of more powers for the Scottish Parliament which – according to proposals agreed by all parties after the referendum – is about to gain more say over tax and spending.

If Holyrood were to end up with de facto control over all domestic affairs and show it could manage just fine, it would take away a lot of the risk that deterred many from opting for independence last September.

At that point, the SNP could turn to the Scottish people and say: “we run our own affairs anyway, so why not take the next step and become formally independent?” It is this approach I suspect has been the SNP’s long-term strategy all along.

The other possible route to independence could open up if the Conservatives are in a position to form another coalition or minority government and it is not Ed Miliband moving into No 10, but David Cameron staying put.

This means there will be a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU in 2017 – or even sooner if Mr Cameron has to do a deal with UKIP to stay in power.

If the result of this vote were to be to leave, but a majority of Scots had elected to stay in, the SNP is likely to argue that justifies another referendum on Scottish independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has already called on the other parties to agree that any decision to leave the EU would need to be endorsed by a majority in all four constituent nations of the UK. The Conservatives are not likely to agree to that, but would also find it hard to oppose another vote on independence if a majority of Scots had opted to stay in the EU.

Scotland has been the bright spot in a generally dull election campaign, but the result is going to be another thing altogether – we are in for a fascinating ride over the next few weeks.

The deals and decisions made – and not made – are very likely to carry us closer to the dissolution of the UK.

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